South African Slang

One of South Africa’s popular tourism websites provides a list of commonly used Zulu words and phrases, presumably to help visitors to South Africa be able to communicate with locals. But we thought that we’d put together our own (possibly more useful) list of words that have entered the mainstream, most of which would be understandable to the majority of South Africans, but many of which would have foreigners scratching their heads!

  • Aikona: Never, not on your life
  • Ayoba: Expression of excitement. Something that is cool/When you agree
  • Donga: Ditch. From isiZulu word for wall, udonga
  • Eish: Colloquial exclamation of surprise, disapproval, exasperation or regret. For example, “Eish, my cell phone broke”. Derived from Xhosa
  • Fundi: Expert or knowledgeable person, from the isiZulu and isiXhosa word for teacher, umfundisi
  • Gogo: Respectful way of addressing an elderly woman; Isizulu for Grandmother
  • Haw!: Expression of disbelief
  • Hayibo: Expression of disbelief or irritation
  • Indaba: A conference or expo, from the isiZulu word for ‘a matter for discussion’.
  • Jova: Injection, to inject
  • Laduma: Celebratory exclamation when a goal is scored. Originates from the isiZulu for “it thunders”
  • Ma: Respectful way of addressing a middle aged woman
  • Muti: Medicine, from the isiZulu muthi
  • Mzansi: Popular term for South Africa
  • Nkhulu: Respectful way of addressing an elderly man
  • Phuza: A drinking session
  • Sharp: Often doubled up for effect (sharp sharp!). Can mean ‘goodbye’, or that everything is great. Can also be an expression of agreement, or a way of saying “Okay, sure”
  • Shongololo: Millipede. From isiZulu and isiXhosa, ukushonga, ‘to roll up’
  • Sho’t left: Derived from everyday South African ‘taxi lingo’. A commuter wanting a ride to a destination close-by will say “Sho’t left, driver,” meaning ‘I want to get off just around the corner’
  • Skebenga: A gangster, layabout, no gooder. From isiZulu word isigebengu, meaning ‘bandit’ or ‘plunderer’
  • Spaza: An informal trading-post/convenience store found in townships and remote areas
  • Toyi-toyi: Protest-dancing
  • Tsotsi: Township term for a young boy who’s already committing crimes
  • uBaba: Respectful way of addressing a middle-aged man
  • Ubuntu: African philosophy with the central tenet being that a person exists because of other people. From the isiZulu word for goodness
  • Vuvuzela: A long, plastic horn blown loudly at football matches in South Africa. Thought to have been modelled on an antelope horn
  • Wena: ‘You’, from isiZulu. “Hey wena. Would like a beer?

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